IT WAS THE early days of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2014, awaiting word on whether a grand jury would indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown.
Unbeknownst to the demonstrators, the police were also waiting — and watching. Stowed away in a secure room known as the Joint Operations Command Center, officers and analysts from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department kept eyes on the news, activists’ social media accounts, and closed-circuit television feeds from across the district, according to internal MPD emails. The police were ready to funnel intelligence to officers on the ground, who were instructed to provide updates on protest activity back to the JOCC every half-hour.
Five months later, the MPD “activated” the JOCC again to monitor demonstrations against the Baltimore police’s killing of Freddie Gray, the emails show. In the lead-up to the protests, MPD analysts scoured social media for demonstration times and locations, as well as any possible indications of violence or civil disobedience, while officers on the ground sent photos of the gatherings. Then when marches started, the officers provided constant updates on where protesters were moving as the JOCC continued to gather intelligence, including on how demonstrators were monitoring the police presence and whether they suspected that there were plainclothes cops among them. (The JOCC had a practice of communicating with undercover officers, including to monitor protests.)
The MPD designed the JOCC as a surveillance control center. It contains more than 20 display monitors linked to around 50 computer stations, all connected to the MPD’s broad arsenal of intelligence data programs and surveillance sources. Launched in a rush on September 11, 2001, it was the MPD’s first “war on terror”-era infrastructure upgrade. Since then, the command center has served as a template for area police’s massively expanded domestic surveillance apparatus.
As a jurisdictional oddity and the site of the country’s most powerful institutions, D.C. contains more law enforcement officers — coming from local, regional, and federal agencies — per capita than any other major city in the U.S. The highly coordinated agencies have together built a complex network of partnerships, initiatives, and technology to surveil the district. The JOCC, for example, is accessible to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and regional police intelligence hubs, in addition to the MPD.
For years, this sprawling web of surveillance has been shrouded in secrecy. Now, more than two decades into the frenzy of police monitoring of ordinary citizens, recently uncovered documents are revealing its scope and practices. (The MPD did not respond to The Intercept’s emailed questions.)
“There’s a real potential for this kind of surveillance to cause a chilling effect and a climate of fear around the right to protest in the city.”
Last year, the transparency collective known as Distributed Denial of Secrets published 250 gigabytes of MPD emails and attachments, stolen as part of a hack by the ransomware group known as Babuk and made searchable by the Chicago-based Lucy Parsons Labs. Using the documents, news outlets — including The Intercept — revealed that the MPD’s database of supposed gang members is riddled with errors and used to justify aggressive policing of Black communities; that an MPD robbery unit likely engaged in “jumpout” intimidation tactics and targeted schools and youth; and that a powerful MPD tribunal overrides the department’s attempts to fire bad cops. Unreported emails in the trove shed light on the D.C.-area law enforcement agency’s elaborate surveillance operation.
And this week, a band of civil rights organizations known as the ICE Out of DC Coalition published a report — based on documents obtained through public records requests as well as public sources — mapping out many of the capital region’s law enforcement surveillance agencies and technologies.
Taken together, the report and the hacked documents provide a first-of-its-kind look into the close and frequently invasive eye the police keep on D.C.-area residents.
“Many of these systems are constantly collecting information about D.C. residents and can provide precise details on their daily lives in real time,” said Dinesh McCoy, a staff attorney at Just Futures Law and co-writer of the ICE Out of DC report. He pointed to the cops’ practice of sifting through social media, calling it “troubling,” especially when targeting First Amendment-protected activities.
“There’s a real potential for this kind of surveillance to cause a chilling effect and a climate of fear around the right to protest in the city, especially for Black and brown people that are targeted most often by police.”